L. J. Sellers
Sex sells. That’s what marketers always say. And it seems to be true for tight-fitting jeans and toothpaste. But it is true in crime fiction? In my experience—not necessarily.
Some of the best reviews I received for my novel, The Sex Club, started out with a disclaimer like this: “I didn’t think I would like this book, but . . .” The readers/reviewers went on to say that the title (and sometimes the cover) had turned them away from the book and that they’d read it reluctantly because another reader raved about it. They ended up loving the story, but still, their initial aversion concerned me.
After seeing the pattern, I asked members of Dorothly L (a reader/writer discussion forum) what they thought about the title. Many said they would never pick up the novel in a bookstore or library because of the title. So then I wondered: How many bookstores and libraries had decided not to stock the novel because of the title? From the comments of a few, I believe there might be many. After realizing this painful reality, I started adding this footnote to all my communications about the novel: “Despite the title, the story isn’t X-rated.” It is not a good sign when you have to explain or make excuses for your title.
On the other hand, many writers on the CrimeSpace and Facebook networking sites have posted great comments about The Sex Club’s cover and title. One writer posted, “Judging by the title, that’s a book I have to read right now.” Many others have simply said, “Love the cover!” and “I love the title!” Some even commented that they liked the book’s short pitch on Amazon: A dead girl, a ticking bomb, a Bible study that’s not what it appears to be, and a detective who won’t give up.
But when I started a discussion specifically asking how they felt about the word sex in a crime fiction title, the reaction was mixed. One writer said, “If sex is in the title, isn’t that a lot of emphasis, leading the buyer to think the book might be in the wrong section of the bookstore?” Another commented, “For me, the word sex would have to be relevant to the plot. I hate titles that just try to get people to buy even when it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.”
The most interesting response was, “I just read an interview with the author of The Jane Austen Book Club and she said that everyone thought the words Jane Austen on the cover would be what sold the book, but in fact it was the words Book Club. It’s the same thing here, it’s the word club together with sex that’s interesting.”
In a similar online discussion, many people (mostly women) said they simply skip sex scenes when they come across them in mystery/suspense stories. I also feel that they drag down a fast-paced story, which is why I didn’t write any such scenes in the novel.
My publicist, who came on board after the book had been printed, felt very strongly that the title was a mistake and made both of our jobs a lot harder than they need to be. She thought that not only was I turning off mystery readers but also alienating other readers who were attracted to the title, then disappointed to find out the book didn’t have much sex in it.
I’ve come to believe she’s right. A quick search of Amazon brought up only one other mystery title with the word sex—Sex and Murder (A Paul Turner Mystery). But at least that author was smart enough to get the word murder in the title too. (Mystery readers love a good murder!) I’m sure there may be others, but after months of perusing thousands of reader postings on multiple list servs, I’ve yet to see another mystery title mention sex.
I debated the name, The Sex Club, for months, and finally went with it because it seemed perfect for the story. And, to be honest, I thought it might get media attention. But in retrospect, if I had it to do all over again, I’d change it. My conclusions: 1) Bookstores and libraries are critical to sales, and authors can’t afford to alienate them or their patrons, 2) Mystery readers prefer dead bodies to warm ones.
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and occasional standup comic, based in Eugene, Oregon. She is currently writing a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For.